In classic noir fashion, Sick City opens with a death.
Jeffrey, a male prostitute junkie, goes to wake up his lover and sugar daddy (a retired Los Angeles cop with a taste for kinky sex) only to find him dead. Author Tony O’Neill wastes no time in establishing his distinctive tone: “Jeffrey stared mutely at the body for a minute. He’d seen dead bodies before, but never one he’d fucked in the previous twenty-four hours.”
If you like what you just read then you will enjoy Sick City, because it only gets better. Tony O’Neill knows the dark side of Hollywood. He knows the flophouse hotels, the sleazy hustler bars, the street corners where drugs are found, the dealers and the has been celebrities. And he describes them with a prose style that reads like the bastard child of Dashiell Hammett and Evelyn Waugh. This guy is tough, funny and unexpectedly sensitive.
Sensitive? Yep. A world of ambivalent intimacy is captured when, in the same opening scene, Jeffrey packs his things and the contents of his dead lover’s safe and prepares to leave: “He kissed Bill’s cold, rubbery forehead. He felt for the first time that he was kissing a little old man.” Mr. O’Neill does not tell us what Jeffrey felt on previous occasions, but the implication is clear and the arrow hits home. O’Neill’s quiver is full of arrows that hit home.
The McGuffin is a celebrity sex tape that Jeffrey has taken from the dead man’s safe. The sex tape features a group sex party with Steve McQueen, Roman Polanski, Lee Van Cleef, Mama Cass…. and Sharon Tate. Presumably, Officer Bill was one of the first responders to the Manson murders and managed to confiscate this valuable property. Obviously, its worth something. Mr. O’Neill has the story telling licks to convince you this is real, and then he takes off.
In the following chapters, he capers through a series of darkly comic vignettes with carefully observed characters including multiple junkies in celebrity rehab, a former child sitcom star turned gay porn star turned gay porn star has been junky, a murderous drug dealer loved by a needy lap dancer who imagines that they are “Bonnie and Clyde” and, in a satiric tour de force, the director of a 12-step inspired celebrity rehab center, Dr. Mike, who is conducting a secret affair with a stunningly beautiful transvestite crackhead.
Mr. O’Neill is at his best in his skewering of the recovery movement. 12-step programs are an unlikely target for satire, and Mr. O’Neill’s politically incorrect romp through the recovery subculture is deliciously funny and will be a (perhaps guilty) pleasure for anyone who has known that community, even if one is indebted thereto. (This reviewer speaks from experience.)
Mr. O’Neil began his career with success as a punk rocker followed by a descent into heroin and crack addiction, experiences which he has detailed in his previous, explicitly autobiographical novel, Down and Out On Murder Mile.
With Sick City, Tony O’Neil confirms his comic voice and whets our appetite for more. If dark humor, punk sensibility, literary sophistication and pointed satire are among your addictions, you should find Sick City a rewarding read.